Helen Reddy, the Australian-born pop singer who died on Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 78, has justly been celebrated and mourned for her groundbreaking, then nigh-radical hit “I Am Woman," which reached the top of the charts late in 1972.
True, hearing it now, it seems almost quaint in its bald polemicism — if you can describe as polemicism the rather mild notion that a woman, or rather all women, are as strong, powerful and ready to “roar” as men. Women of the era naturally propelled the song to popularity, coming as it did when the Equal Rights Amendment was being debated, and women would begin fighting the backlash against feminism that would bring the likes of Phyllis Schlafly and Marabel Morgan (she of the “wrap yourself in cellophane to keep the man interested” book “The Total Woman”) into the cultural conversation.
But I am sure there was another audience that cherished Reddy and her string of pop hits at the time. This would be young gay men, or maybe proto-gay men: prepubescent, prehormonal, but still innately and acutely aware that they were somehow destined, if they didn’t find their own way to “roar” their truth, or at least whisper it to sympathetic ears, to being relegated to the margins of society.
I was about 7 when “I Am Woman” became a sensation, and I was certainly a part of this proto-gay demographic. I was already learning that I wasn’t what was considered normal: All my friends were girls, and my favorite pastime was dressing up in women’s clothes. When my grandmothers visited, I would beg them to let me clomp around in their high heels, which they sweetly if probably rather worriedly indulged.
When “I Am Woman” came on the radio in our station wagon, I furtively turned up the volume, memorized every word and sang it to myself whenever I could. Privately, of course: It wouldn’t do to for a boy to belt it on the playground in the virtually all-white suburban community in then-nascent Silicon Valley where I grew up.
But my adoration of Reddy — she was my first pop music obsession — didn’t stop with her biggest hit. The first album I ever bought with my own money, allowance saved up for weeks, was “Long Hard Climb.” I still remember gazing with an inward thrill at its pastel foldout jacket. It was released in 1973, and two of its songs became hits: “Delta Dawn” and “Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress).”
Those were really the only songs I listened to, in the way kids (and not just kids) fixate on songs and play them repeatedly, until the vinyl fairly groans with boredom. And it’s only now, long after I stopped listening to Reddy, that I realized that these songs, too, along with her later hit “Angie Baby,” contained a dark subtext — well, it wasn’t so subtextual if you carefully parsed the lyrics, which I didn’t have the psychological or sociological acuity to do at the time — about the corrosive dangers of being a social outcast.
Consider Delta Dawn, the doomed and apparently deranged heroine of the title. “All the folks around Brownsville say she’s crazy,” we learn, as she “walks downtown with a suitcase in her hand, looking for a mysterious dark-haired man” — the man “of low degree” who apparently seduced and abandoned her. A sort of AM-radio Blanche DuBois, poor Dawn was, viewed from a 21st century perspective, a victim of the cruel sexual mores that still treated a “fallen” woman as a pariah, if not in fact a madwoman, at least in places like Brownsville.
“Ruby Red Dress” was a very similar figure (clearly Reddy’s producers knew a good niche when they saw it). Like DD, Ruby also wanders around town (unnamed), “talkin’ to herself” and fleeing at the approach of others. The chorus: “Leave me alone, won’t you leave me alone / Please leave me alone, now leave me alone"; the sentiment being repeated for a full eight lines, for all three choruses. She was another loner and outcast, and also a woman apparently driven to her maddeningly repetitive chorus by a “farm boy from Tennessee” who “taught it all to Ruby, then just let her be.” Delta Dawn all over again.
The young gay boy in me certainly didn’t consciously identify with these pathetic figures, immortalized though they were in infernally catchy choruses. (Still, that wail of “leave me alone” surely struck a strong chord.) But pop music has an insidious way of igniting self-discovery even when it is unrecognized. It also has the power to bring solace and understanding.
As a boy who was already well aware that I was not going to be prom king, and was probably already being picked last for any and all team sports, I am sure that somewhere in my confused psyche Reddy’s doomed heroines provided a kind of perverse comfort. If they were special enough for Helen to be singing about them, there might be hope for me.
Perhaps the darkest of the mad heroines of Reddy’s hit parade was the young woman called “Angie Baby,” whose story in fact speaks specifically to the way I, and gay men of many eras, escaped from the casual (and not) brutalities of the world through the mediums of music and movies, where fantasy could flood the mind — and take the place of absent friends.
“You live your life in the song you hear / On the rock and roll radio,” run the opening lines. “And when a young girl doesn’t have any friends / That’s a really nice place to go.” I hear you, Angie!
Poor Angie (age unknown) is haunted by “lovers” who appear in her room each night, and has to be taken out of school. Despite being called a “special lady, living in a world of make-believe” — I could relate — Angie is obviously mentally disturbed and, like Delta Dawn and Ruby Red Dress, her sisters in pariah-hood, victimized by a “neighbor boy / With evil on his mind.”
But, in contrast to Reddy’s other macabre heroines, Angie has her revenge. The boy with evil on his mind somehow (I think) is subsumed into the music on Angie’s radio, becoming her “secret lover” even as the headlines tell of a boy who “disappeared.”
Score one for the crazy ladies.
I liked some of Reddy’s more benign songs too, such as “Peaceful” and “Keep on Singing.” But looking back, I suspect, even more than “I Am Woman,” my affection for which inadvertently affirmed what we would now call my innate recognition of gender fluidity, it was the grim but melodically irresistible stories of Reddy’s outcast women that really sank somewhere into my young heart and brought a dark but perhaps necessary comfort.
If freaks like them could become the stars of pop songs, perhaps there was hope for even a kid like me.
Charles Isherwood is a theater and arts critic who has written for publications including the Advocate, Variety, the Times of London and the New York Times.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.